MONEY WOES DIVIDE CHURCH
Unitarian Universalist at crossroads BY JON RUTTER, Staff Writer
Harmony is a Unitarian Universalist tradition.
But some members of the local congregation say empty coffers have sparked a dangerously divisive narrative in their church.
Activities at the English country parish-style building at 538 W. Chestnut St. are being rolled back for lack of funds.
The bulk of the staff is being cut.
Supporters are being asked to step up donations to keep the church doors open past mid-March.
A congregational meeting to discuss finance and governance issues will be held at 11:45 a.m. Sunday, after the weekend service.
Underfunding is not uncommon among churches.
However, congregant Linda Dobbins said, "It has never been this squishy before, to the point we have no money in the bank."
She said UUCL has in recent years relied increasingly on borrowing and deficit budgeting to pay for growing staff and programs.
Some people were OK with that. Others began heatedly objecting to the practices –– and to some aspects of church leadership.
The long-bubbling controversy didn't surface until recently.
"I really don't think most of the church members realized it was this critical," Dobbins said.
But the 111-year-old liberal religious institution is now at a watershed, said Dobbins, who has led the board twice in her 35 years at the church and weathered many crises.
"This particular crisis is much more severe than anything in the past," she said.
Another former board president, Thais Magill, who served from 2009 to 2011, said she is not ruling out a schism.
"Have people left the church because of [all this]? Absolutely."
Magill didn't know how many and softened the statement by adding that some new people also continue to join.
"I'm most sad about the fact that the church that has been able to be a refuge in the community is under threat from within," Magill said.
Dobbins said the church has never closed before.
She and Phil Holzinger, a current board member, predicted that it will remain open, and that it will not split.
"I think there's enough momentum there" to continue, Holzinger said.
According to the church's records and website, congregation numbers have continued to hover at just over 500 for about eight years.
But some former stalwarts have become less active, said Tanis Shaw, who joined in 1995.
"I have not been going for a couple of years because I have not been happy" with the church's financial picture and other issues she declined to discuss.
"Those of us who are withholding pledges are being blamed for the church not staying above water," Shaw said.
Magill noted that the congregation voted on the budgets that some members are now publicly criticizing.
"It was understood that we were going to borrow money to expand our programs at some point and expand our base."
But some didn't like the risk, she said, and that set the stage for personality conflicts.
Financial direction was previously provided by the church's co-ministering couple, the Rev. Patricia Hart and the Rev. Peter Newport, who launched their tenure in 2006 with ambitious plans to grow membership and boost pastoral care and community outreach.
The couple is on paid sabbatical until late spring.
Calls to Newport's cell phone Wednesday and Thursday were not returned.
The church announced in January the formation of a financial advisory committee and noted that the ministers had been removed from day-to-day financial oversight of the church for one year, until December 2013.
Their salary, which was not disclosed, was returned to its original scale of two half-time positions.
Board President Claudia Hostetter declined in an email to comment on the situation this week "before all of our church members have had the opportunity to share their ideas."
Church members said N. Thomas Barninger, a retired mortgage banker advising the church executive committee in the ministers' absence, resigned from the board Monday.
He could not be reached for comment.
Unrest started simmering about two years ago, Dobbins said.
In October 2012, after being notified of the practice by concerned church members, the state attorney general warned church leaders to stop tapping donor-restricted funds for operating expenses.
The state levied no sanctions but is continuing to monitor the church as it normally does in such cases, said Lauren Bozart, attorney general spokeswoman.
Meanwhile, in a Feb. 15 all-church email, Barninger cautioned that UUCL could not meet its $350,000 budget without "extraordinary support from the congregation."
He estimated a $72,631 budgetary shortfall by the end of the fiscal year in June and noted "draconian staff cuts" would have to be considered.
A Feb. 27 all-church email announced that three hourly staff members were to be furloughed March 8 through June 30.
Three salaried staffers were to be furloughed through June starting March 15.
Church members say UUCL has reached its credit limit and cannot borrow more.
But Dobbins predicted that the church will continue to run on "volunteer power" and generosity. "I think we'll have enough to keep utilities on."